Winston Churchill once wrote: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
If true, this is a mixed blessing for Durango, which, architects say, is home to an unusually eclectic collection of buildings that – from the 19th-century Strater Hotel’s brick aplomb to the downtrodden concrete rectangles that line north Main Avenue – includes several architectural triumphs and many more eyesores.
“There’s a lot of wonderful architecture in Durango,” said local architect Larry Holcomb, citing the Fort Lewis College chapel and the Community Concert Hall among his personal favorites. “But there’s a lot of appalling architecture around Durango, too.”
Asked to name the best examples of architecture in Durango, architects were nearly unanimous in naming their own work.
But there was broad consensus about other admirable buildings, especially those in Durango’s historic downtown district. Most named the Strater Hotel, the old Public Library, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train depot and the Newman Building.
Opinion was more fractured when it came to modern buildings.
“I can’t really think of that many contemporary buildings in town that are all that great,” architect Steven Gawlik said.
Architect and City Councilor Dean Brookie said Durango Public Library and the Durango Community Recreation Center were examples of great design, creating spaces that are aesthetically congenial and function well despite being used by enormous numbers of people.
Though local architects generally preferred older buildings to newer ones, many singled out Ignacio’s Sky Ute Museum, which was built by Native American architect Johnpaul Jones, as perhaps the best building in the county.
“That’s a fantastic building,” said architect Rick Feeney. “Just gorgeous.”
“I love that building,” Holcomb said.
Architects’ opinions also coalesced around the worst buildings in Durango: the West Building on East Second Avenue, The Commons building on Camino del Rio, and the Italianate property development on north Main Avenue.
Architect Jon Pomeroy said both the West Building and The Commons building were what he termed “missed concepts.”
“It’s an architect trying to get tenants by doing the cheapest, nastiest thing that isn’t sympathetic to the surroundings at all,” he said.
Brookie said there is a bright side.
“The Commons ... used to be even uglier. We did some de-uglification when the adult education center bought it, gave it a new paint job,” he said.
Brookie said the building nonetheless functioned well, with a lot of nonprofits, including the Sexual Assault Services Organization and the Alzheimer’s Association “cohabiting in that building.”
Many architects likewise were dismayed by City Hall. Brookie said City Hall was a period building that “really shows just how fast things can go out of style.”
Pomeroy said while City Hall is architecturally underwhelming, the real architectural travesty is not what it looks like today, but that the old courthouse, which he described as a remarkable stone building that “would have endured forever,” was torn down to make room for it.
Brookie said many of Durango’s worst buildings share a historical origin.
“The West Building, City Hall, Vectra Bank – they were the fad of their day,” he said. “They’re straight out of 1970s magazines.”
But most local architects agreed that Durango’s worst architecture wasn’t the particular fault of an architect, as no architect had been involved.
“Oftentimes, bad architecture comes about when there isn’t an architect involved, where a developer built without much attention to things we look at – like proportion and style – and just built them fast to make money,” architect Dallas Reynolds said.
Pomeroy said La Campanella development also suffered from profit superceding architecture.
“That neo-Mediterranean thing is an onion, an absolute onion,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been allowed, and it didn’t sell.”
Feeney said he was aesthetically most offended by “all the strip malls outside of town,” and seemed to feel some special sense of personal responsibility for Walmart.
It “was built while I was out of town for five or six years,” he said sorrowfully. “Everybody wanted Walmart to come to town, be built in city limits. But the stone work on Walmart just makes me sick – horrible, horrible work, and it does nothing to placate the local people.”
While Durango’s architects were unsparing in their appraisal of unsuccessful buildings, they also were clear that Durango’s architecture had improved noticeably.
Feeney said architects now broadly agree that additions to historic buildings ought to reflect the time in which they’re built.
“And new buildings on Main Avenue that are built in this age should look like their age,” he said. “You should never try to fool people into thinking that this is an old building, or try and fake it, because it demeans all the other truly historic buildings.”
Architect Gunnar Anderson said he’d been in Durango for more than 20 years, “and the quality of the buildings has only continued to improve.”
“That’s good, and it speaks well of the architectural community,” he said.
Not for nothing, when architects speak of their work and that of their peers, their long view often is reminiscent of Chairman Mao: When asked what he thought of the French Revolution, Mao said it was “too soon to tell.”
Pomeroy recalled the public furor that met architect Maya Lin when people first saw her groundbreaking design for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“It’s truly beautiful, but people don’t like change, and they couldn’t see through their own shock,” he said.
Pomeroy described the outrage that met his own buildings in Farmington, which the public initially thought to be too brightly colored, too new.
“Now everybody wants to be in those buildings. They’ve won awards,” he said. “But at the time, I was crucified.”